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Marx’s theory of property: Whore or Just “Easy”?

Whore or just easy -- You decide.

In response to one of my posts, Who are “WE”?: Toward the beginning of an answer to Mike, Daniel Shay writes:

I begin from the precept that one owns oneself. That is, you own your body. You have a right to engage in economic activity to attain ownership of those things which are necessary to maintain your body and your self. You are entitled to attain ownership of those things which edify you, things which you might desire but which [may] not be vital to the maintenance of your body. Perhaps they spark the spirit in some way. However, these are objects. One may own or sell objects, or one may use one’s ability to sell the services or skills one possesses. Perhaps you wish to use your body as a commodity, and sell it for certain purposes like blood transfusions or organ donation. Maybe you wish to engage in sexual intercourse for money. The point is that [at] all points, property is something tangible, or something that relates back to the tangible. There are of course ideas, but ideas relate to the tangible.

With these words, Daniel explains his view of how to analyze and understand property. I want to say I am not writing this to provoke an argument, nor am I singling out Daniel for his views. I use his view as an example of the typical approach not only made by libertarians to the question of property, but the view probably held by anyone with an ounce of common sense. It is, without argument, this view of property that in some variant or another dominates our thinking about the subject, and it is probably this view, more than any other single concept — perhaps even the concept of money — that makes Marx’s theory appear bizarre and unfathomable to most who give it a cursory examination.

So, I want to begin by stating that Marx’s theory of property is entirely wrong and entirely nonsensical from the standpoint of the normal course of our society. In other words, I want to begin by emphasizing the point that Daniel’s view is not only the common sense view of things, but also that the entirety of the social relations of present society, and the State itself, could not exist for a single second were this common sense view of property not only dominant but the actual way property behaves for us.

Let me give an example: You throw a ball against a concrete wall; it bounces off the wall and returns to you. Your understanding of the solidity of concrete is determined by the action of the ball. But, if, on occasion, the ball suddenly did not bounce off the wall, but continued through it, you would be frigging surprised. Now, your understanding of the solidity of concrete would undergo some conversion — it is mostly solid, but, occasionally, it is non-solid.

So it is with property: for all intents and purposes we can, in the course of our normal every day experience, confuse it with the objects we call property simply because those objects act like property, behave predictably as if they were property, and appear to us and to society in general as property-like things. Even our own bodies can appear to us as property we, or another person, can claim to own. We can dispose of these things, even our own bodies, as objects that, on the one hand, are not us, but, on the other hand, are possessed by us, and, by exchanging them for the like property of another, transfer the ownership of them to another person in return for his.

But then, certain apparently insignificant discrepancies enter the picture: I can, for instance, purchase the use of a woman’s body for an hour for, say, one hundred dollars. It is an exchange between adults, and, since we hate the State, we do not think such an exchange should in anyway be illegal. We are just two people meeting in the flesh market and agreeing over the price to purchase the use of a piece of property. Once we agree on the amount of money to be paid, and the duration of my use, we consummate our deal.

Now let’s take that same deal under slightly different circumstances: Again we meet in some flesh market, but, instead of agreeing to exchange my one hundred dollars for the use of the woman’s body we simply agree to get a hotel room and mutually exchange the use of our bodies in the act of anonymous sex in which each person gets to enjoy nothing but the organs of the other.

Here we have two exchanges side by side, by two people who are only exchanging their property for the use of the property of another under certain definite terms. They need have no other intent other than to conclude their exchange, but in the first case it is outlawed by the State but the State takes no notice of the second. More important, we do not see the exchanges as the same. Despite the fact the each provides his or her property in exchange for the property of the other, in the first exchange, this property appears in the form of property; while in the second exchange it appears in the form of promiscuity. In the first, it appears as a category of Political-Economy and Law, while in the second, a category of Morality and Ethics.

That the woman appears in the first exchange as a whore, and in the second as a cheap date, despite the fact that she is offering the exact same object to me, of course, depends on what I offer in exchange. This discrepancy should alert us to the possibility that the perfectly common sense idea of property — at least in the form of self-ownership — may not be the entire story.

I will try to expand that story just a wee bit in the next post.

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